Obamas Revamp Tree Lighting With PBS Air Dates, 65 Pounds of Glitter

By Walter Nicholls December 7, 2009, 2:45 PM EST

The first family at the National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony

Photo: Paul Morigi

National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony
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The Obamas officially kicked off the 2009 holiday season in Washington Thursday night by lighting the national Christmas tree amid a glittering, ramped-up production and show, the likes of which this city had not seen. Under tight security after the recent Secret Service security blunder at the Obamas' first state dinner, nearly 10,000 gathered for the 86th annual event, this year with sponsorship by Underwriters Laboratories.
Staged on a soggy, rain-drenched Ellipse with an earlier start than usual at 5 p.m., the program began with a piece by the United States Marine Corps band and introduction by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, which was followed by musical performances, the lighting of the tree, a reading of ”'Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Michelle Obama, and more musical acts. For the first time and in partnership with WETA, Washington’s flagship public broadcasting station, the 60-minute lighting ceremony will be aired on PBS stations across the country throughout the holiday season.

Presented by the National Park Service and the independent charitable organization National Parks Foundation, the entertainment portion of the event was produced and directed by New York-based Alex Coletti Productions. Entertainers for the show, hosted by Randy Jackson, included Sheryl Crow, Common, and Jordin Sparks.

“With the Obamas in the White House, there was renewed interest in the event this year and a focus on updating it for the new administration, bringing in green [elements] and a diverse lineup of talent,” said the foundation’s Mark Shields. “Meetings began in summer with the challenge of bringing together all the moving pieces with a lot of organizations and the White House.”  

In other firsts, this year the park service and the foundation introduced a lottery system to distribute tickets for 2,800 seats and 7,000 standing. (Nearly 37,000 people requested tickets.) The 2009 lighting display is the most energy efficient in history, consuming two-thirds less energy compared to last year’s. GE, which has designed and donated the lighting since 1962, used 750 strings of white LED lights, half new, half reused from last year. The 42-inch topper for the 42-foot Colorado spruce tree is a three-year-old star with GE Tetra LEDs. Other recycled ornaments include the gold stars from 2008, white stars from 2004, and gold starbursts from 1998. The production also includes 55 smaller decorated trees that form the “Path of Peace,” representing the 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia. Sponsoring organizations from each state provide the tree decorations, which are encased in plastic bubbles for weather protection.  

Now in its 55th year of participation, Hargrove Inc. installed the lights and decorations and created the new, enhanced signage for each tree. The White House suggested the star and snowflake theme that surrounded the 58- by 40-foot stage, which was designed by Coletti Productions and executed by Hargrove. In addition to providing the 10- by 20-foot stage thrust, Hargrove also painted the set in blue and white and coated the giant stars and snowflakes flanking the stage in nearly 65 pounds of glitter.

“In past years, what you had was a basic bandshell with stage and risers with a Santa chair, wreaths, and maybe toy soldiers,” said Hargrove’s Chris Fulghum. “This year it was TV worthy. We got glitter.”

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